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Sean Kirst: In demolition derby finals, it came down to father versus son

Sean Kirst

As a little boy, Tyler Haniszewski shared a bedroom with his brother, Tim Jr. On weekend nights during the summer, when their father would travel to compete in the demolition derby at some faraway county fair, Tyler and Tim Jr. would will themselves to stay awake.

They'd listen for the sound of his car in their Lancaster driveway, and they'd leap out of bed when their dad walked in the door. They'd run to the kitchen, where — if all went well — Tim Sr. would show up with a trophy and a pocketful of cash. He'd laugh as they fired off questions about the derby, but the big ones always involved what to the boys were the two key elements:

Was it "hard-hitting," and did Tim Sr. win?

On both levels, Tyler said, Sunday's finale to the "world's largest demolition derby" at the Erie County Fair was deeply satisfying.

He knows for sure, because it came down to him and his dad.

[Sean Kirst: With state fair championship gone, Hamburg becomes 'big one' for demo drivers]

Tim Sr. ended up as champion. He walked away with $1,200 for capturing the main championship and another $200 for winning his heat, where the car of Tim Jr. — a former state champion — had a mechanical problem and got knocked out early. That meant Tim Sr. ducked going head-to-head with one of his sons, a situation he'd always just as soon avoid.

While he didn't get so lucky in the finals, his showdown with Tyler, 26, was nothing new. As a patriarch of one of the dominant "demo" families in Western New York, Tim Sr. has squared off with his boys before.

Still, this one was a little special. This was Hamburg, after all, as close as they get to home. And with the state fair in Syracuse no longer holding a statewide championship, this event was the emotional highlight to their season. Tim Sr. doubts he'll drive again this year.

The last three drivers in the feature included the two Haniszewskis and Dan Roesch. Once Roesch went out, Tyler said he and his father hit the gas and for a moment — as their vehicles smashed together — they looked across at each other, through the dust and fumes, and realized it was all down to them.

"We kind of smiled," Tyler said. "It was like: Game on."

In the stands, at the same instant, Sue Haniszewski felt a wave of relief. She met Tim Sr. more than 30 years ago, when she was a teenager in Alden. She had never been to a derby until she watched him drive. Hundreds of races later, she has seen her husband come home aching and bruised, and she has watched drivers pull themselves out of cars that rolled over and burst into flame, and she still worries when anyone in her family is on the track.

As you'd expect, she roots for all the Haniszewskis to do well. But what she really wants is for them to come home uninjured. Once it's down to Tim Sr. against one of the boys, one certainty gives her comfort:

They'll go hard, she said, "but they won't try to hurt each other."

Tim Sr. said that's part of the relationship he has with his kids. He runs a wrecker service called "Triple T," which stands for himself, Tim Jr. and Tyler. Saturday, he had to drive to Williamsport, Pa., on a towing job. In any typical situation, that would have stripped him of the time he needed to get ready for the derby.

Tim Haniszewski Jr.: Knocked out in a heat with car problems. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

His boys had him covered. Tim Jr. and Tyler spent Saturday working on the old Lumina their father later drove to victory. That kind of knowledge goes back to when they were tiny, Tyler said. He and Tim Jr. used to hand their dad his tools when he was beneath a car. Tyler — who also finished second to his cousin, Rod Froebel, in Sunday's 4-cylinder finals — can remember being so small that his father would send him into the trunk to help chain it up, so it wouldn't fly open once it started getting slammed in the demo.

Tyler, Tim Sr. and Tim Jr. with family trophies. (Photo courtesy of the Haniszewski  family)

"Yeah, we rebuilt it for him," Tyler said of the work they did last weekend on his father's car. Monday, Tim Sr. expressed his appreciation. He was sore from his legs to the back of his neck. He won a state and world championship in 1981, as a teenager, and he's won at plenty of county fairs since then. At 54, it would be easy to walk away from the sport. But his wife has a theory.

She thinks it is no different with her children than with anyone who wants a parent to keep playing basketball or softball or any sport that binds generations. Her three kids — Tim Jr., Tyler and Sara — still love to see their father on the track, even if the result is what happened Sunday:

He ended up as the winner, with his son in second.

It came down to the two of them, Tim Sr. and Tyler, both driving old Luminas. They slammed into each other four or five times, Tyler trying to remember the lessons his dad handed down, the ones Tim Sr. learned from his own father, Ed Haniszewski Sr., the first demo champion in the history of the Erie County Fair: Keep making contact, but try to keep the front of the car as clean as you can. Father and son followed that pattern in a duel that lasted maybe four minutes, until, finally, Tyler's car gave out. He and his dad climbed out and shook hands on the track.

"I was kind of glad," Tyler said.

The truth is, the same things about the demo that made him happy when he waited up at night made him happy again at the fair: It was hard-hitting, it was fun to watch — and his father won.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at and read more of his work in this archive.

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